We are used to visualising sea at the end of a land or a land at the end of a sea, but this stereotypical image gets knocked on its head when we go to the western outskirts of Scotland called Hebrides. Hebrides – both Inner and Outer – on the western edges of Scotland offer the spectacle of land, lochs, sea and islands embracing each other in a spectacularly serene landscape.
The start of a sea in Hebrides does not preclude any further land, as just a few miles of sea will usher in an island and then a few miles of land of the island will lead to another stretch of sea or a loch or a lochan (a small loch) and the pattern repeats few more times. Land and sea truly intertwine there. It is estimated that there are over 31,000 lochs and lochans in Scotland alone. Loch is a Gaelic word for lake.
We started our journey by road from a bus station just outside Queen Street Railway Station in Glasgow heading towards Oban on the west coast of Scotland. We skirted along Loch Lomond and evaded few other lochs on our journey and, needless to say, the landscape was spectacular. On the way we stopped at Inveraray (the ancestral home of Duke of Argyll) for lunch and then proceeded towards Oban. Oban is the major ferry port connecting almost all the outlying islands in Hebrides.
From Oban we took a ferry to go to Craignure, a ferry port, on the Isle of Mull. Mull is the second largest island (area=875 sq.km and about 45km long) in the Inner Hebrides with a population of just over 2,500 people. The island had seen better days a couple of centuries ago when the population was over 7,000 and there were trade links with Ireland and other Outer Hebrides islands. The Vikings were regular visitors to these shores plundering the island. The Norse influence in local language, culture etc is clearly evident here. Our hotel was situated at the edge overlooking the wider stretch of the sea. Just a short distance away from our hotel is the water stretch that is called the Sound of Mull. The name ‘Sound of Mull’ comes from the fact that in the olden days people from Mull used to shout out a message or call for a ferry across the narrow stretch of water from the mainland and the mainland people used to say they received the Sound of Mull.
The following day we travelled by coach through the spectacularly scenic road (mostly single tracks with ‘passing places’) in Ross of Mull to Fionnphort to take a ferry to Iona. The name Iona in Gaelic means ‘sacred isle’. It is truly a place where serenity merged with numinosity overwhelmed people. The most famous landmark in the island is the Iona Abbey, which was established by St. Columba in 537AD (even before Islam was proclaimed in the deserts!). John Smith, the Labour politician and the leader of the party who could have been the British prime minister if he would have lived a few more years, when he died in a heart attack in 1994, is buried just outside the Abbey. When I asked, why his grave is out in the open, whereas quite a few graves are sheltered inside the Abbey, I was told that only ‘noble people’ are buried inside the Abbey. Scottish feudal system is very much alive and kicking out there. We were also told that special permission was required for John Smith to be buried in the island. Next to the Abbey is the Nunnery where more than 100 nuns used to live at any time (until 19th century) and devoted their entire lives in the service of God!
After spending the whole day mulling over the relics left behind by those who served God to the best of their abilities, we left the isle of Iona by crossing the ‘Sound of Iona’ to come back to Mull and then to our hotel. Whereas Isle of Mull was one of the major trade posts for the Vikings, isle of Iona was distinctly a devotional place.
The following day, we set off in the northerly direction through single track roads to come to Tobermory, the ‘capital’ of the island. This capital is not a hustling and bustling city, but a sleepy little village of about 700 people. There is one main road by the sea having about 10 or 12 shops and, of course, a distillery producing Scottish whiskey. They are extremely proud that their whiskey is exported to as far a place as Japan.
At about 10:30 we took a ferry to go to a small island called Staffa. After about one hour of boat trip we reached the point where a ferry could dock. Staffa is a volcanic island with basalt columns and natural caves. The famous caves are ‘Mackinnon’s Cave’ and the ‘Fingal’s Cave’. Staffa is also a National Nature Reserve where birds have sanctuary to breed in peace. Round the edges of the columns, there are perilous wooden steps to go up to top to see birds in natural habitat. But this climb is not for faint-hearted.
After spending a couple of hours there, we set off for another, even smaller, island called Lunga, which is in the range of Treshnish isles. This island, as well as Staffa, are uninhabited and hence it is an ideal place for bird sanctuary. Puffins are there in large numbers at the top of the island hatching their eggs. Our guide told us that in about two months’ time, parent puffins will fly off to warmer islands in the south, leaving the chicks to fend for themselves and then fly off to the south.
On the last day of our trip, we left our hotel early in the morning to visit the Duart Castle, the 13th century home of the Chief of MacLean Clan. In the Scottish feudal system, MacLean Clan as well as McDonald Clan were at the top hobnobbing with British and foreign Royalties. But as usual, they were also bitter enemies and rivals for centuries. If one Clan became Royalist, the other would be anti-Royalist and vice-versa.
On our journey back, we crossed the Fishnish to Lochaline ferry and then drove through the magnificent Morvern mountains to come to another ferry crossing. After that we went through Glen Coe and Loch Lomond. Glen Coe is the most famous glen in Scotland with deep glacial valleys and towering mountains. Scotland has some of the skiing slopes in these mountains. After that we followed the road along Loch Lomond to come back to Glasgow Railway Station.
Altogether it was a magnificent tour not only because it took us through magnificent landscape but also it allowed a glimpse to the Scottish heritage and hierarchy.
- Dr A Rahman is a writer and a columnist.